Environmental protection and human food security co-exist in a critical balance, one that is often difficult to get right. The pressures of population rise, farming intensification, and loss of habitats and species mean that protections afforded under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are pivotal to the conservation of agri-ecology. In the EU, agri-environment schemes (AES) encourage farmers to undertake environmentally friendly practices and are thus vital to the objective of sustainable agriculture. This Thematic Issue looks at some of the impacts that AES have had on European farm ecosystems, biodiversity and farmers. Intensification was one aspect of the modernisation of agriculture, but it had the unfortunate side-effect of increasing pressure on the environment. That is why the reforms of the CAP since 1992 have aimed to progressively reduce the pressure of agriculture on the environment.
Following its introduction in the 1960s, the Common Agriculture Policy supported European farmers in achieving the Treaty of Rome’s objectives of increasing productivity and ensuring the availability of healthy, good-quality food. Intensification was actively sought and encouraged, often resulting in increased pressure on the environment. Since 1992, reforms of the CAP have aimed to reduce pressures on the environment. Several instruments and tools have been developed and made available to farmers to mitigate the environmental impact of agriculture. AES have been one of these policy tools.
Agri-environment schemes provide financial support for Member States to design and implement agri-environment measures (AEM). Each measure has a specific environmental objective, such as the protection or enhancement of biodiversity, soil, water, landscape, or air quality, or climate change mitigation or adaptation. Many measures are multi-functional and are designed to bring simultaneous benefits for several environmental objectives. Each measure also involves paying those farmers who choose to adopt specific environmental-management practices on their farms.
Agri-environment measures are developed under the Member State’s Rural Development Programme. They are mandatory for national and regional administrations, but voluntary for farmers. Farmers who choose to go beyond the current basic requirements (either mandatory or those allowing them to qualify for a basic subsidy under CAP, e.g. specific Good Agriculture–Environmental Conditions1 (GAEC) standards; or ‘greening’ practices) can claim payments for AEM.
A wide variety of management practices are promoted through the AEM mechanism, which reflects the complexity of both farming systems and ecosystems — examples of measures include: organic farming; integrated production; reducing inputs of fertilisers and/or pesticides; crop rotation; enhancing habitats for wildlife; introducing buffer strips; managing livestock to provide the right grazing pressure on grassland species and avoiding the risk of soil erosion; and conserving genetic resources in agriculture and local species and in animal breeds threatened by genetic erosion. Approximately 25% of the EU’s utilised agricultural area is under AES contracts with farmers, including organic farming, and expenditure for 2007–2013 was about €23 billion.
This Thematic Issue presents recent peer-reviewed research examining the impact of AES on European farming, with a particular focus on biodiversity and associated ecosystem services. AES have been shown to benefit a range of animals and plants by increasing the number of individuals and species. However, as with all measurements involving complex ecosystems, the findings and causal links are nuanced, and sometimes difficult to isolate.
The studies examine whether the effectiveness of AES is influenced by farmer training and cultural activities, different ways of measuring the costs, whether collaborative schemes gain more farmer trust and the significance of aiming at specific objectives and/or areas in AES.
Studies featured in this issue show that results-oriented AES, where applicable, can be beneficial in stimulating long-term positive behavioral change within farming communities, by providing additional encouragement for farmers to improve their conservation skills. Collaborative schemes involving several farmers, and, notably, involving farmers in scheme design, have also met with success.
The studies presented in this issue demonstrate the considerable role of AES as a tool for integrating environmental concerns into agricultural policy and farming. Without these schemes, biodiversity in the agricultural environment would be afforded less protection. However, although many AES demonstrate an increase in the abundance and diversity of species, this issue also highlights that there are still many improvements and refinements that could be made in order to improve the cost-effectiveness of measures and schemes.
Agri-environment schemes are adaptive and need to be continually revised and improved, allowing for tailoring and targeting to a particular Member State’s priorities and ecosystems.
But what is the future of the AES? A debate is now beginning on a post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy, which will certainly include a discussion of the techniques, strategies and funding necessary for achieving our evolving picture of desired environmental outcomes. This issue provides some pointers towards ways of further improving the design and uptake of AEM, which should enable such schemes to secure even greater effectiveness and environmental protection in the future.
We would like to thank Dr Daire Ó hUallacháin, of Teagasc Agriculture and Food Development Authority, Johnstown Castle Research Centre, Wexford, Ireland for his help in producing and editing this Thematic Issue and Editorial.